A tale of loss and luck: Social media saves ‘the pen-seller of Beirut’

Posted at 5:51 PM, Jan 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-07 17:51:10-05

They had searched for days for the so-called “pen-seller of Beirut.” Now, the activists stood in the doorway of Abdul Halim al-Attar’s dingy apartment.

Tens of thousands of dollars have been raised online to help you, they happily told the destitute Syrian refugee. A picture of you has spread online, they explained as they showed him a photo of himself.

Abdul was heartbroken.

“This is when I got upset and I started arguing ‘why would someone film me? Why would someone do this to me?'” Abdul, al-Attar’s preferred name, recalled.

A snap of Abdul selling pens in the street while cradling his daughter over his shoulder brought the 33-year-old’s story to the world’s attention.

Abdul’s facial expression in the picture is what got social media users the most — he looks desperate, on the verge of tears, as if those plastic blue pens are all he has in the world.

But to Abdul, the photo took the last thing he had left — his dignity.

“It was very depressing. We were not like this in Syria,” Abdul explained. “How could I just carry my daughter in the street like that? Rather than sending her to school to learn and have a good education, I take her like this to work with me? I felt torn up inside when I saw this picture.”

Abdul then asked the do-gooders in his home the question that perhaps every refugee has asked at some point in their miserable escape from war: “Why would the world care about me?”

Just another refugee

Abdul was right. Why would the western world care about another Syrian refugee?

There are now more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees languishing in makeshift camps, washing up on the shores of Greece in rubber dinghies, and crawling under the razor wire fences built to keep them out of Western Europe. A funding shortfall of more than 40% in 2015 forced the U.N. to cut food assistance and other forms of aid to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable families.

The father of two’s story was just another tragedy.

Abdul says he fled heavy fighting between rebels and the Syrian army in the Yarmouk camp, a neighborhood near Damascus, in 2012.

“The rockets would rain down on us and we wouldn’t even know where they came from,” Abdul said. “I got scared for my little daughter. When she would hear a plane she would be terrified. I found there was no solution but to leave the camp.”

Once a chocolate-maker at a sweets factory in Damascus, the single father struggled to find work in the Lebanese capital Beirut, a city saturated with refugees like him desperate to eke out a living for their families.

“My little daughter, I couldn’t leave her alone. I tried to apply for a job in many places but they would not accept me keeping my daughter with me,” Abdul said. “So I found the only way was to sell pens.”

Selling pens to students and professionals in downtown Beirut earned him a couple of dollars a day at best. Although the photograph revealed a rare moment of deep sadness, Abdul was known to always wear a smile as he carried Reem, his toddler, through downtown Beirut for hours. Even when he could not afford to send his 9-year-old son to school, the merchant kept his grin.

“People would ask me why are you smiling and I would say what do you want me to do? You want me to cry? God gave me this smile,” Abdul said.

Much like the flower-selling refugee children and the crippled beggars seen daily on the streets of Lebanon’s capital, the pen seller of Beirut became a staple, until one day a stranger snapped his photo.

“I had no idea my picture had been taken,” Abdul said. “I was surprised these people came to me and they had my picture on their cell phones. I asked them what do you want?”

What they wanted was to give Abdul’s story a fairy tale ending.

A social media rescue

When the amateur photograph of a Syrian refugee sparked a viral campaign and an international search for Abdul, aid workers and journalists were stumped.

What was different about this call to action from the news stories and aid appeals on Syrian refugees shared daily online? Was it Abdul’s abject posture? Was it Reem’s little orange shorts? Was it the blue pens?

Abdul believes he knows the answer.

“It was Reem,” Abdul said. “The way she looks sleeping on my shoulder. Her face. She seems so innocent.”

Regardless of how it appealed to people’s humanity, Abdul’s story struck a chord online.

Gissur Simonarson, an activist from Oslo, Norway, and Carol Malouf, a Lebanese journalist, launched a crowd-funding page urging users to collect $5,000 for the struggling family of three.

Within 30 minutes, the #BuyPens campaign reached its goal. In 24 hours, nearly $80,000 was raised. And by the end, more than $190,000 dollars was donated from across the world for Abdul.

But the story doesn’t end there — the savvy Syrian quickly went to work, promising to help other refugees. Now, just four months later, he has started two restaurants in Beirut that employ 24 other refugees. He says has also sent money to relatives back home in Yarmouk who have also opened businesses to help their local communities.

“This photograph … it impacted people so much,” Abdul said. “Now I am so thankful for the people who did this campaign because my children are now getting an education and they are in a better place. We now have a nice home that is neat and clean.”

Abdul has won his dignity back. He is now the hero in his own story and in the story of dozens of others who he paid forward with determined kindness.

Now is the time, he says, for the world to provide millions of refugees like him the autonomy to write their own narratives, to regain the dignity lost on their dehumanizing journey from conflict to safety.

“I wasn’t a rebel. I wasn’t some fighter in a car,” Abdul said. “I was just a pen seller and the whole world saw me.”